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Surviving the Great Indoors: The Pros and Cons of Living in an A/C World

There's no doubt that air-conditioning can save your life, but as heat waves increase in the future, should we all be armed with A/C?

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths about Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)by Stan Cox (New Press). You can also read a recent piecefrom Cox about tips for staying cool without air-conditioning.

Eddie Slautas turned down his neighbors' repeated offers to install a window air conditioner in his Chicago apartment. Even when they said they'd help him pay the difference in his utility bill, the 74-year-old demurred. "Why should I make my electric bill higher?" he asked. "The fan is good enough." Then came a fierce midsummer heat wave. On the night of July 30, 1999, the neighbors found Slautas dead. The fan was running, blowing hot air across his body. He was one of 103 Chicagoans killed by the heat that week.

On the last night of July 2006, a Commonwealth Edison power cable running beneath the city of Chicago failed, putting 3,400 customers in the dark. The next day, as temperatures reached 100 degrees on the fifth day of a blistering heat wave, 1,300 people had to be evacuated from high-rise residential buildings in the area. Their apartments had become saunas, so they took refuge in air-conditioned shelters. Resident Lutricia Somerville, who had resorted to spending much of the night in her parked truck with the air conditioner running, told a reporter, "It's just like Hurricane Katrina." Those trapped in the heat must indeed have felt some of the desperation that had hit New Orleans residents 11 months earlier. But the outage was short-lived, and this time no one died or suffered serious medical problems.

Life and Death on Heat Island

In June 2009, the U.S. Global Change Research Program -- a cooperative effort by 13 federal agencies and the White House-- issued an alarming 188-page progress report on the pace of global warming. Among many dire predictions was a forecast of deteriorating human health. Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center and the report's principal author, said health was the issue sparking the most discussion among the agencies and leading to the least certain conclusions; however, the report confidently predicted increasing rates of heat-related illness and mortality, and that higher temperatures, along with air pollution, would cause the already accelerating rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments to rise even faster.

Heat waves continue to plague Chicago, but the city is better prepared than it once was. Its public health officials are determined to avoid a replay of the bitter experience of July 1995, when more than 550 city residents were killed by record-breaking heat. Most of those who died had no air-conditioning, or if they did, they could not afford the electricity to run it. The record numbers of air conditioners that were switched on triggered more than 1,300 failures in the electricity supply system, many of them caused by overheating of overloaded transformers. A series of blackouts hit both rich and poor neighborhoods, but the bulk of the casualties occurred in lower-income areas.

Longer, more intense heat waves hit Chicago in 1931 and 1936 but killed far fewer people. That difference between the 1930s and 1990s has puzzled experts; residential air-conditioning was virtually unheard of in the 1930s, and the inner city's population was only slightly smaller then than it is today. However, the average age of residents has increased, there is a lot more concrete to hold the heat, and analysts at the Midwestern Climate Center have suggested that people, especially older people, have become more afraid of crime and more reluctant to leave doors and windows open or to sleep outdoors (as many did in the 1930s). The analysts went on to suggest that "many people have also forgotten how to 'live and function' with high temperatures."

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